The swing in the backyard of Lincoln and Ruth Pierce’s home over looked a minor branch of the Tennessee River. The setting was beautiful but elevated high enough above the river that the sound of the water rushing over rocks was muted. The rocky hillside dropped sharply to the stream; nevertheless, its descent sported blooming rhododendrons and Dogwood trees. The verdant drop presented little place for roots to sink but there they were clinging to the barest measure of soil. Max considered the tenacity of those plants; they reminded him of the poster he’d seen in Allison’s room of a cat gripping a branch with only its front claws.
He tried to remember the caption thinking it was something like “Hang in There.” When he saw the poster for the first time, he had identified with the cat. During that period, right after Lily’s diagnosis, he felt a lot like he was hanging by his nails from a limb.
The rhododendrons and the Dogwoods growing out of the rocks, on the cliff he now observed, refused to turn loose of their sparse bit of earth adding their testimony to the countless numbers who refuse to stop living even as the earth crumbled beneath them.
No longer hurried by the schedule of others, Max had carried his ice cream bowl from the back patio to that very spot. Multiple concerts of the William Tell Overture changed the course of their journey—yet again—slowing once more the pace of the trip.
Some of the changes were almost humorous—Ryan had decided to fly to Greenville and accompany his parents to Ocean Isle. Suddenly, after months of being the busiest professor in the history of modern academia, he found he had at least two weeks to spend with the folks. Some changes were disturbing—there were issues Nancy Mayes needed to deal with in Oklahoma and Kansas, before she and Amanda’s mother came east. It might take a day or two. Please, please she had begged through Millie who shared the information with Max talk to Amanda, prepare her.
Before Sophia handed the phone to him she carried on in muted tones with Millie. Listening to the one sided conversation between Sophia and Millie before being handed the phone led Max to believe that the two females were in cahoots about something and also suddenly caused him some anxiety about the cost of long distance calls on cell phones. His conversation with Millie did nothing to relieve his anxiety but it did shift his focus from feminine plots and cell phone bills to Amanda and her family situation.
Both Barry and Peggy called as well both inquiring about how Lily was holding up and how he was recuperating from his accident. They also had brief conversations with Sophia resulting in a rise of fresh suspicions on Max’s part, but nothing he could put his finger on.
The alterations of the travel plans allowed Max to accept a gracious invitation to a home cooked Sunday dinner. Ruth Pierce invited them all after the worship service. Ruth’s mother had lived with them the last year of her life, she told him. Lily reminded her of her Mom. Seeing his embarrassed look, she went on to say that the year had been hard but had proven to be the most precious time she’d ever spent with her mother. It would fill a hole in her heart if Max would bring Lily and his friends to dinner. He’d been ready to refuse, but Ruth Pierce’s gentleness as much as her words told him she understood his heart—this woman he’d barely met understood how love worked.
The ice cream capped off a sumptuous feast of fried chicken, fresh greens, mashed potatoes and gravy plus a variety of side dishes, all begging to be sampled. He had sampled plenty. “Lord, I do love southern cooking.” He repeated several times during the meal. After dinner, Ruth with Amanda had helped Lily to one of the bedrooms for a nap. Sophia engaged Pastor Pierce, who asked to be called Lincoln, in a lively conversation about his interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal. Max had excused himself and gravitated to the spot above the river.
His ice cream finished he sat the bowl next to the swing and began to pray about the ground that needed to be covered—not simply the roads to the ocean but the numerous tangled paths created by truths withheld in the name of love. He had his and Amanda had hers as did Sophia, the Pierces, and everybody—the just and the unjust. Certainly neither youth nor old age offered protection from the forces of nature nor the acts of man—including the consequences of choices made without thinking.
Amanda watched Max from the window of the bedroom where Lily slept. Ruth Pierce sat in a rocker near the bed, occasionally rubbing Lily’s back when she stirred or moaned in her sleep. She was singing as she rocked and Amanda found herself half listening; Ruth’s voice was smooth and deep and the melody pure. Amanda had temporarily abandoned her plan to run out on Lily, Max and Sophia. So now she was, in part, debating whether to go talk to Max or wait.
Though she feigned skepticism when Sophia told her Max had not ratted on her, she knew Sophia spoke the truth. The expanse of lawn reminded her of Nana and Poppy’s backyard in Mulvane. Poppy took pride in landscaping and gardening. For as long as she could remember her times with him included digging in the dirt or picking tomatoes or beans. When she was little and he was younger he’d swing her up on his shoulders and let her pick the very first peach of the season. Amanda swallowed hard feeling the sting of hot tears threaten to fall.
Poppy had built a gazebo for Nana in a corner of the yard. He called it her private garden. He surrounded it with hedges and planted vines that under his tutelage soon covered the structure. Amanda loved the spot. In the summer, she had traveled to Mulvane to spend one week with Nana and Poppy and the following week with Granny Nan. Her parents would drive her up on Sunday afternoon and she’d transfer from one home to the other on the following Saturday. At the end of her visit the three grandparents would drive her back.
At Nana and Poppy’s she’d carry a book to the gazebo to read or merely watch the light and shadows playing through the vines and leaves. She wouldn’t be going this year.
Max walked to the edge of the yard and stood for a while looking down, before returning to take a seat in the swing. Amanda watched as he sat his bowl on the ground, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head resting on his clasped hands. ‘Is he ok?’ she wondered.
Earlier all indications were that they were going to cover lots of miles to make up for lost time, but shortly before the last of the congregational hand shakes and hugs, Amanda had answered the cell phone. That call had been from Max’s snotty son—put my Dad on, please–. Within moments of the end of that conversation, The William Tell Overture signaled another incoming call. That time it was Max’s daughter-in-law for Sophia and Max. When the band struck up again, Amanda handed the phone to Sophia.
“Why don’t you take care of this?’
“Shouldn’t there be a ‘please’ in there somewhere?”
“I’d be happy to.”
Sophia had flipped it open and answered it.
Even with the door of the room closed Amanda could hear Pastor Pierce and Sophia talking about his sermon. The discussion sounded like it could continue for hours, a sort of self-perpetuating conversation. Without turning she could feel Ruth Pierce’s eyes on her. The dinner had been great. During the meal she had watched for any signs of discomfort on the part of their hosts and finding none, settled down to eat her fill.
Even with her limited exposure to religious rituals in African-American churches, praying and the like, she’d found the church service at Harvest Fellowship livelier than she expected, but no one flopped out in the aisles or wailed or anything like that.
She certainly did not feel uncomfortable in the Pierce’s home and she hadn’t felt uncomfortable in Crossville at Sophia’s. Truth was, Amanda couldn’t see in any of these people as victims in need of empowering. Sophia—for sure—didn’t need a grain more of power or she would likely be dangerous. But she had lived a pretty “white” life back home.
Bits and pieces of the conversation in the other room filtered through her daydream. Sophia and Pastor Pierce were discussing the father in the story. The subject interrupted her negative thoughts that were spiraling downward to a pit inside her that Amanda had not known existed before last week. With some effort she turned her attention to their conversation, still aware of Ruth’s eyes on her but not minding that so much.
Later, Amanda trudged down the sloping yard toward the swing with a glass of iced tea and a sandwich for Max. Ruth Pierce was talking to Sophia inside, while Pastor Pierce prepared for evening services. Amanda suspected she’d been given this task because she asked too many questions.
She hadn’t intended to do anything but listen, but when the subject of honoring parents no matter what came up, she left the bedroom trying to get some answers, but she realized it probably looked like she was itching for a fight. To Lincoln Pierce’s credit, he never flinched at her bluntness; instead he’d simply indicated a chair and asked her to join them. Amanda did.
Frankly, she thought shortly after joining the discussion, she should have stayed put in the bedroom, because the convictions she’d nurtured the last several days suddenly felt less like fact and more like a one-sided view—hers. The struggle she had with the radical viewpoint coming from both sides confused her. There had been a moment when she wanted to dump the whole mess of her life on both Sophia and Pastor Pierce. Maybe they would see her point of view if they knew her existence had been an accident from the beginning, a series of miscalculations, bad judgment and outside interference.
Amanda knew what they didn’t the fact that she had ever drawn a breath resulted not from the love of her parents but from a poor choice of scheduling. Another minute or two and she might have unloaded; however, that didn’t happen.
The conversation, discussion, debate—whatever it was—had ended abruptly when Lily had awakened in the strange room with a stranger. Ruth tried her best to calm her, but it took Sophia and Amanda to help Lily get oriented enough to ask for the bathroom—unfortunately, not in time. No adults Amanda had ever known had wet themselves.
Lily stomped her feet in frustration as urine ran down her legs, drenched her socks before pooling like a moat around her. Wringing her hands repetitively Lily wailed like a child, “I peed my pants. I peed my pants.” Amanda blushed with embarrassment for Lily.
Calm, take charge Sophia worked with Ruth’s help to calm Lily and get her into clean dry garments. They moved her quickly from the bedroom to the kitchen and Ruth went to work fixing a light supper. As Amanda prepared to take out Max’s supper, she paused to watch Lily, who now sat in the kitchen, nibbling on a sandwich. She continued shaking slightly, but otherwise seemed ok. Impulsively, Amanda leaned over and pecked her cheek. Lily looked up her expression devoid of recognition. With a trembling hand she patted Amanda’s arm. “Are you my friend?”
Amanda wanted to scream, “I’m Greta; I’m Greta!” But how foolish would that be? She certainly hadn’t liked being called by Lily’s dead sister’s name at first. Why on earth would she perpetuate such a morbid delusion? There was no good answer, but somehow Lily’s failure to associate her with Greta bothered her. Without being Greta she was no one to Lily.
Amanda swallowed hard, searching Lily’s flattened affect for a tiny spark. None came. Amanda patted Lily’s hand and turned to go. Before reaching the door she glanced back into the room. Sophia and Ruth talked quietly at one end of the kitchen table; Lily sat empty eyed staring at a spot in space; with her hands in her lap she was picking over and over again at an invisible particle.
So whatever their reasons for sending her out with Max’s supper, Amanda was glad to be outdoors. Lily’s current condition frightened her as much as the scene in the dressing room at Cookeville. Nothing was turning out like it was supposed to—too many stops and little or no progress. Here they were not ten miles from where they started that morning. From the conversation she’d eavesdropped on between Sophia and Ruth, it looked like they were going to stay here for the night. Her thought patterns bounced from past to present to future and back again in the short trek from the house to the swing.
Max looked around as Amanda approached, rising because he’d been raised to do so when a lady entered the room. A whoosh of dizziness swirled around his head. He blinked his eyes and reached for the swing. Amanda stepped forward steadying the swing with her body till Max stabilized.
“Whoa! You ok?”
Max nodded but couldn’t get his voice to work. Finally, still twirling inside, he turned and sat in the swing Amanda continued to hold. ‘Just have to let it settle’ he thought. In a few moments with only a mere residue in his head like the slowing of a merry go round, he found his voice, though it didn’t sound quite right to him.
“Did you bring that to me?” He asked, lifting his right arm to point at the sandwich. The arm felt like an enormous weight was attached. The sluggish movement bothered him momentarily, but then it passed as the last twirl of the gyroscope in his head completed its cycle. All that remained was the persistent headache, but it wasn’t any worse than before.
Amanda studied him for a moment then took a seat in the swing handing him the sandwich followed by the drink. Thankfully, he sighed, his hands grasped the items firmly.
“You’ve been out here a long time. What have you been doing?”
“Thinking, mainly,” he managed between bites. The shadows stretched out across the lawn elongated by approaching twilight. “I thought we’d make Asheville today at least. Guess I whiled away our driving time. Probably ought to get on to Knoxville and get a place to stay for tonight.”
Amanda grunted. “Think again.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Sophia and Ruth practically have our rooms assigned.”
“Oh, My! We can’t intrude like that.” He shook his head then bit off another piece of the sandwich. His next words bothered Amanda though for a moment she could not figure out why.
“This trip hasn’t been anything like I wanted it to be. I thought . . . Imagined. . No, fantasized that Lily and I . . .” He looked off toward the river. Amanda realized Max wasn’t really talking to her, but his tone bothered her—plus hadn’t she just been thinking the same stuff. Sadness clung to his words weighing them down until every utterance sounded forced and mechanical.
There had not been a moment since she’d met them that Amanda had thought of Max and Lily as anything but old. Nevertheless, Max hadn’t seemed decrepit or feeble—until now—now he sounded really old.
A light went on in the kitchen. She looked back toward the house and pictured Lily picking over and over again at something only she could see. Rising from the swing Amanda patted Max’s shoulder. He jolted, blinked rapidly—stared at her before a tentative smile emerged. They exchanged knowing looks both aware that for the briefest of moments Max could not identify Amanda.
Neither moved. Neither spoke. Amanda fussed with gathering the remnants of ice cream and supper. Max steadied his frame and rose from the swing. This time—thankfully—the dizziness remitted. Together in silence they walked toward the light. Max tested his foothold with each step. On top of everything else, he certainly didn’t need to fall.
Once the majority of the current occupants departed for evening services a peace settled over the house. Max relaxed in the larger lounge chair in the Pierce’s living room content to watch Lily sleep in the companion chair. The twitching he had noticed earlier when he had returned from the yard with Amanda disappeared as she slept.
Except for Lily’s whispering snore, the room was quiet. Max’s Bible and journal lay open in his lap, but he did not choose to read or write. The episode at the swing troubled him. Tonight he would swallow two aspirins rather than the pain medication he had been using since his accident. The side effect of high-powered pills often packed a bigger punch than the condition they were designed to relieve. He’d observed that in Lily.
Medications often had to be changed almost as quickly as they were prescribed. He’d learned the hard way. Within a short period of time the medication shelf became packed with useless expensive prescriptions. Peggy had thrown a fit when she saw them lined up like soldiers in the cabinet. She had been right, of course, they needed to be discarded, but he had to leave the room when she flushed them like the waste they were. Max learned quickly to ask for samples or to fill only a portion of the prescription.
Maybe the pain pills were the root of his dizziness and headaches. Another disquieting thought picked at him—the brief amnesiac episode with Amanda. Only an instant passed, he was pretty sure of that, but in that instant he existed in a place he didn’t know—in an unidentifiable time period, with a person he’d never seen before in his life. Search as he did for clues that fractured piece of time, Max acknowledged he had not even known who he was. Maybe dropping back to plain aspirin would help. He hoped so.
His eyes lifted from the pages he was not reading to find Lily staring at him. He smiled at her, watching to see if she still displayed the anxiety she had earlier. Her eyes while filmy did not appear to be frightened.
“Are you my friend?”
“I’m Max and yes, I am your friend, Lily.”
“Max, what a nice name. My husband’s name is Max.”
“Ah? Is that right?” Rare moments like these seldom happened anymore.
Lily remembered she had a husband named Max. He couldn’t recall when she taken that pathway in her brain. “Is he here?”
She frowned and looked around the room. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Where do you think he is?”
“I,” she puzzled with the question, scanned the room again, before her eyes found his again, “He joined the army. He’s . . .I don’t exactly know right now, but he’ll be back.”
“I am sure he will.”
“Yes, after he finds Olivia.” She leaned back in the chair evidently satisfied that the conversation had ended. Max swallowed hard. To his knowledge Olivia’s name had never been spoken between them. He’d seen it in the letters, but until that time Max had not known the name of Greta’s child. In his stubbornness—his pitiable self-righteousness—he had chosen never to ask the child’s name. A name might validate the child’s existence.
Only Greta’s body and a box for Lily arrived from London. No mention of the child occurred within the family, but Lily’s letters—Lily’s half of the correspondence had been the contents of the box—reading those letters and the ones Lily saved from her sister shattered his prejudicial opinions about Greta. Max noticed she slept again.
Max leaned back as well, still watching her. Nowhere in any of Lily’s letters to her sister had she let on that Max felt anything but love and compassion for Greta. Not a word crossed the pages about the harsh words they had exchanged nor the cold silent wall Max erected after the fight. She never shared the nights he had heard her crying softly into her pillow when he would simply grab a pillow and blanket and leave. Gradually, his anger faded, but the letters revealed the damage.
In effect, Lily had lied. She knew perfectly well where Max stood on the issue. His hot words—his frigid withdrawal left no questions regarding his verdict.
Still her slender cursive penmanship wove the reality of their marriage like a master weaver given inferior thread for the loom. If a thread broke, she’d simply keep on weaving, catch the thread with a stronger one and tuck it out of sight.
Reading the letters was an epiphany that forced Max to see the pain he had caused and to recognize in Lily’s lies, grace. The pictures she painted with words portrayed Max with such true strokes that he came to believe Lily not only loved him as he was but saw him as he should be. The letters brought Max insight, but Lily could no longer comprehend. The damage left a gap he’d been oblivious to—a chasm he’d waited too long to cross.
With tenderness he leaned forward and caressed her hand. The trip to the ocean was his way—at this late date—of trying to show Lily that he was striving to exhibit the fiber she’d skillfully attributed to him 60 plus years earlier. He closed his Bible and journal, leaned closer to her while he continued to stroke her hand.
“Come on, Miss Lily; let’s get to bed before the crowd gets back.”
She opened her eyes and let him help her to her feet.
Before he crawled into bed, Max walked to the kitchen, poured a glass of water and downed two aspirin.
The fragrance, clean starched bed linens, slowed the rapid pace of her heart on awakening. The room was dark except for the slivers of moonlight peaking around the edges of the curtains. Lily stared at the ceiling, watching the movement of light and shadow.
There was nothing remarkable about the ceiling; as far as she could tell it was ordinary. A turn of her head to the right as her eyes adjusted to the dim light proved more perplexing. What details she could distinguish bewildered her. The furniture, the placement of the doors and windows didn’t fit. Were it not for the scent of the sheets and the run of the mill ceiling, Lily might have panicked. She lay still, trying to backtrack in her mind.
Laundry was done on Mondays in an outbuilding just behind the kitchen.
Isadora and Bertha Mae supervised Bertha Mae’s two nieces, Joyce and Lolly who came every week to help with the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday. A large wood burning stove took up most of one end of the wash shed. Pots of water set on every burner.
Wash tubs and scrub boards lined one side of the wall while rinse tubs lined the others. Lolly’s son Malcolm transported fresh water throughout the day from the pump. Everything was hung on the clothesline to dry. The best drying days were in the fall when the breeze swept in from the Atlantic. The power of that aroma embraced Lily.
She leaned into the embrace tugged the sheet close to her nose, inhaled, held her breath, exhaled and then repeated the sequence until she found a cozy spot in her memory to rest. The room–its ordinary ceiling and its unfamiliar arrangement—dissolved on her third or fourth breathing cycle. Her eyes closed; her breathing deepened; Lily slept.
Sophia and Amanda packed the car early the next morning. The smell of coffee woke Max. He looked to his right and saw Lily curled up. Leaning over her he saw she still slept. Lily was present and accounted for, but a look around the room told him his suitcase had disappeared. At closer observation he noticed a change of clothes and his shaving kit rested neatly on the bureau. Lily’s things sat next to his. Humph! This was a good sign. Human elves had been at work. Maybe they’d cover some ground today.
Stretching his frame served to work out some of the kinks caused by the inactivity of sleep. A familiar proverb mentally resonated “Too much sleep and too much slumber, too much folding of the hands to rest and poverty will come upon you like a bandit.”
The gremlins of atrophy stole from his body and mind without so much as firing a shot. His hip triggered a reminder that brittle bones broke with the slightest fall. The battle demanded his full determination to stand his ground for as long as he could. Extending the muscles in his legs and arms before rising helped assemble the troops who had not gone AWOL.
The few minutes spent organizing his faculties, allowed Max additional time to prepare his soul for the day. Of all the greasy little bandits of poverty, the gremlins who threatened his spirit taunted him most. Battling them took more than the grit of his will. Those nasty harbingers of doom retreated only when Max reached into his closet arsenal. He’d recite bits and pieces of scripture he’d memorized as a child—whatever came to mind. He prayed and he sang. The latter he’d learned from his mother, but it was the one he saved until safely under the hot running water of the shower.
The rituals completed, Max rolled to a sitting position on the side of the bed. Whoa! The gyroscope in his head tilted; the spin began. Complicating the dizziness, an invisible Suma wrestler pinched his head together from the forehead to the nape of his neck. When the nausea erupted, lying back down attracted Max, but he swallowed the bile and stayed upright; his hands grasped the edge of the bed, which was tilting forward threatening to buck him off.
Max had attended a few rodeos in his life. At that very moment he suspected bull riding to be no more challenging than his current condition. His eyes open he tried to fixate on a stationary object. Shutting them he found escalated the problem. In spite of the fact that his eyes seemed to be jerking and rotating in his skull, he managed to lock onto his shaving kit on the bureau.
The tilt diminished and the whirring slowed, and with its demise his nausea subsided. The retreat of nausea and vertigo thrust his headache to the forefront. The Suma wrestler’s grip hadn’t lessened in the least and Max noticed a high-pitched ringing in his head. Nothing a couple more aspirin couldn’t relieve, he thought pushing to stand, testing his legs before venturing toward the bathroom. Max rotated his head slightly—checking for residual disturbance in his head—before turning to check on Lily. The tilting bed evidently had not bothered her a bit, he mused.
He stepped forward and moved with as much determination as he could to complete his preparations for the day. As he went he decided his fight songs for the morning would be, “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “The Solid Rock”. Spurred to ignore his headache, Max hummed as he went, reasoning in light of the forces in his cache that bandits and gremlins of poverty had better beware!
The front porch of the Pierce home faced south so that the morning sun filtered through the tree branches providing agreeable lighting, the pleasantness of sunlight without the heat. The furnishings consisted of two cushioned rockers. The provisions formed a pleasant environment in which to sip morning coffee. Of course, Max reasoned that no amount of pleasantness could hold him long. There was unfinished business he needed to discuss with Amanda, but he had hoped to be on the road by now—a glance at his watch told him it was 8:30. Talking to her here in the Pierce’s home didn’t fit Max’s ideas, but strangely he couldn’t seem to get a handle on what the right place would be?
He had tried to read the paper, Ruth had brought him, but the print doubled up on him, so he sat and waited. Lily had awakened agitated about washday. Everyone in the house had tried to calm her, get her to eat some breakfast and help her get ready. For someone who didn’t top the scales above 90 pounds, she could sure put up a fight.
In the midst of the fracas Amanda noticed Max’s strained expression and clumsiness first, but it wasn’t long after she asked if he was alright that the women en mass exiled Max to a seat on the porch while they got Lily ready to go. Lincoln Pierce had gone off to a minister’s alliance meeting, so as the lone male, Max did as he was told.
Not for the first time since beginning the trip Max questioned his thinking. Half the time or maybe more than half, he’d discovered how frail and dependent he had become. Taking care of himself on the open road required most of his energy, which left very little for Lily, who needed constant attention. Without Sophia and Amanda, without folks like Lincoln and Ruth Pierce, aborting the trip would be the only option.
His own disgruntled murmuring brought a wave of depression, “Should of stayed on the farm.” No sense bothering other people with his problems; Max preferred being able to handle whatever came along. A westerly breeze brought a hint of rain, though the sky denied the possibility. The fragrance refreshed a recent but distant memory from the deck of the inn, two days previous.
He lifted his eyes out beyond the lawn to the road. Everything looked like it was a 3-D comic book with multiple images off setting each object. The strange blur failed to pass when he closed his eyes then reopened them. His stomach lurched. Reluctantly, he shut his eyes again holding the position a few seconds longer before testing his vision. This time things looked a little sharper and his stomach ceased doing flip-flops.
“You okay?” Amanda stepped out onto the porch and perched on the rail facing him.
“Of course,” Max lied. “How’s it going inside?”
“Sophia and Ruth are helping Lily shower and dress. She had some breakfast. They sure didn’t need me so I came out here to talk.” Her eyes shifted left uncomfortably.
“Ah, yes,” Max sighed, thinking what she wanted to talk about and what he needed to tell her were miles apart, unless she’d come out to tell him why she’d run away. With no clues from her side, he wasn’t about to launch into the conversation he’d had with her grandmother. Max chose to wait, let the aspirin do its work and listen.
“Finish Greta’s story—she’d started walking through the park,” Amanda invited, her eyes carefully averted to the lawn.
“Greta?” Temporary confusion jumbled Max’s thought patterns. He’d been seeking a starting point to share the information he’d received, half expecting Amanda to assist him. Lord, he wondered, could Greta’s story help or hurt?
Max had promised to tell her, but in the wake of the other account, Amanda’s story, he feared Greta’s might do more harm. The decision, right or wrong, fell to the promise. With a breath he hoped would clear his brain, he began. Amanda continued to look away, but the nuances of her body told him she was listening.
“Before she reached the other side—three men in hoods—they . . . attacked her.” Max’s voice dropped to nearly inaudible as he struggled with the words. Amanda’s face turned slightly, but she didn’t flinch. “They beat her…especially her face…she screamed so loudly, one of them pushed her face into the mud to keep her quiet . . .thinking she might suffocate in the mud, she stopped struggling. Mud mixed with her blood filled her nostrils and caked over her eyes, but she managed to lie still. Greta knew she might die at their hands, but her stillness spooked them.
With their footsteps retreating, she managed to get to a sitting position and wipe her face with her sleeve. Just as she started to rise, one of them or maybe the fourth man grabbed her by her hair, spun her toward him and pummeled her face some more. That beating mercifully slid her into unconsciousness.”
“How do you know all this? Did she tell you?” Amanda’s voice demanded, swinging her body and head toward the yard, away from Max.
“Letters, she wrote Lily all about what happened, but not right away, not until much later.”
“Did she go to the police? Did they catch them.”
“No, she was too ashamed and humiliated.”
“Why? For Chris…goodness sake. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
Max grew silent. Greta hadn’t done anything wrong. Amanda hit him dead center with the dart without ever knowing it. Guilt rose like the bile of his early morning nausea leaving just as foul a taste in his mouth. With effort he continued wanting, no needing to tell this story out loud even if it was to a child.
“When she regained consciousness, she discovered the last man or she hoped it was only the last one, had . . .he had . . .defiled her.”
“Are you saying he raped her?”
Max recognized once again how worldly children were—What on earth did fourteen year olds know about rape? Why on earth did fourteen year olds need to know about rape? —But he supposed they did given the evil in the world and so many children being abused. He couldn’t stop to probe so he pressed on.
“He did or they did. Greta never knew for sure. She managed to pull her belongings together and get home. She avoided the church where Charles was practicing. It was January before Lily received Greta’s letter about what had happened. Funny thing was they continued to exchange letters during the interval but Greta’s bothered Lily. They became hardly more than duty notes written to a distant relative.”
Amanda leveled her gaze at him for the first time that morning, started to ask a question, shook her head and turned back to the lawn. Max thought about prodding her—ask your question; save me from having to come up with the words—and then decided not to. He wanted to finish the story.
The act of sharing the sordidness of Greta’s violation honored her in a way he could not explain—honored her, as she should have been all those years ago. The shame thrust on Greta by her attackers turned out to be only the beginning of the shame she would endure. Lily had shielded her from Max’s harsh opinions, but protection of Greta from the actions and gossip of so many in Savannah and Brunswick was impossible.
The pause in conversation wore thin on Amanda’s demeanor. She fidgeted on the railing, finally moving to the top step of the porch. Settling with her back against the post opposite Max, she stared up at him. A touch of orneriness prompted him to latch eyes with her like a mad dog. With a sigh of exasperation Amanda threw out her hands palms up, breaking first.
“Well?? What happened? Did she tell Charles?”
“She actually told Charles the next day after it happened. He didn’t buy her made up story that her battered face with a broken nose occurred when she fell in the park. Remember, I told you Charles loved her. He really did . . . to a point. He ordered her to stay away from Dr. Levin and her activities at the synagogue for her own protection. Average citizens, good people in Savannah and back home in Brunswick found associations with Jews hard to stomach.
He encouraged her to keep her story to herself because few people would sympathize with her, because they didn’t know her like Charles did. Charles had grown up in Georgia and he knew what incited violence in normally gentle folks. Greta withdrew from those associations, but her relationship with Charles began to slide. Normally, she was stoic not given to tears like some southern women, but after the park incident, her crying became so unnerving to Charles that he ordered her to just get over it.”
“Yuck, what a loser!”
“Sixty years ago, I probably would have acted just like him. Greta no longer was the woman he fell in love with and he was determined to force her back into that mold. Charles continued his frustrated attempts until that January. Greta wrote Lily before she told Charles. The truth she had denied became undeniable, she was expecting a child.”
Max paused, wiped his damp face and looked at Amanda whose mouth formed a silent “oh”.
“Lily wanted Greta to come to Kentucky and stay with us. She might have done that if Lily’s husband hadn’t been such a hard hearted fool.” Max looked at Amanda for her reaction. A mildly astonished look crossed her face.
“You wouldn’t let her come? What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking—at least not like I should have been—I was judging Greta. Nice girls, “who got in trouble”, he drew quotation marks in the air, “went quietly away some place, had their baby, gave the baby to a family and returned home with some cockamamie story about studying at a boarding school or somewhere. They sure didn’t flaunt their mistakes in the home of their sister, not even one who lived two states away.”
Amanda scowled, but chose silence over speaking. Max appreciated that. He just wanted to get the rest of it out as quickly as possible. His head had begun to pound again and the nausea of earlier lurked in a corner of his abdomen.
“Greta went to Charles. Charles loved her but the idea of raising another man’s child appalled him. Not knowing what to do, Charles went to his older brother Wade.
Wade like Charles recognized that Greta had been violated, but no way was the child to become a “Lewis”. Charles retreated to his music while his brother Wade took charge. It was Wade who arranged for a doctor he knew in Atlanta to end Greta’s little problem. What he didn’t count on was Greta’s reaction.”
“He arranged for an abortion? Wasn’t it illegal back then?”
“It was.” Max restrained his tongue before blurting “not to mention immoral.”
“Greta rejected the offer and told Wade to get on back to Brunswick. Charles and she would handle it. Wade went directly to Charles, helped him pack his belongings and both brothers took the train back to Brunswick. Charles left a terse note, but to my knowledge they never spoke again.”
“So then she decided to go to London,” Amanda interjected.
“Not immediately, she simply kept on working until her pregnancy became obvious to her co-workers and everyone. The hospital medical director fired her on moral grounds.”
“What?” Amanda roared. “How could he do that?”
“It was 1939, Amanda. Unwed mothers were not viewed in the same light as today. There were unspoken morals clauses in every job place and frankly, even married pregnant women didn’t work in public. He had grounds to fire her. Her options were to fight an uneven, humiliating battle or leave. She left.”
“She probably wished she’d gone to see that doctor in Atlanta.” If Amanda was fishing for a reaction, which he presumed she was, Max denied her the pleasure and let the remark go.
“That night Joel Levin came to visit her. With reluctance Greta allowed him to come in for a few minutes. Needless to say her mood hardly conveyed hospitality, but Joel Levin didn’t come for a social visit.
With no preparation he launched into a lengthy often convoluted tale of the insidious Nazi persecution of the Jews and other “inferior” people in Europe. There was good news though, he told her, his nieces, Sarah and Rachel had an opportunity to escape Austria legally. England had opened her doors to accept Jewish children between 5 and 17 years of age if their parents had the 50 pounds necessary to assure their transport.
They would not be allowed to bring anything of value with them, and they had to have relatives or a family willing to accept them in England. Joel told her he had sent the money through his Gentile friend. The girls were scheduled to depart Austria in a month.
Greta listened but the plight of Dr. Levin’s nieces didn’t arouse the ire she would have felt a month or two before. Her struggles dampened her normal “Good Samaritan” qualities. Her biggest concern that evening was how she was going to tell the rest of her family she was expecting a child. She had vowed to Lily that she would never share the horror surrounding her baby’s conception. Even with her own inner turmoil raging, Greta tried to be polite but her patience wore thin during the visit.
He rambled outrageously, repeating himself several times, as if he was circling a jumping off point. He kept rotating his hat brim in his hands and staring off in the distance. Greta just wanted him to leave and was about to insist on it when he turned to face her squarely. ‘So you understand, Greta, I have the utmost respect for you. Perhaps that is not enough, but my nieces will need a woman in their life.’ Greta’s letter to Lily highlighted her confusion at his comments. She had no clue where his tedious monologue was headed, but suddenly he had gained her attention.
Greta watched as Dr. Levin straightened his spine, raised his eyes, and looked her square on—you know what I mean?” Max asked Amanda, who was looking him square on. “With very few words he let her know how deeply he respected her and, well, he, he, well he told her that he had received word from her attackers shortly after the incident in the park. They brutally informed him of “what happened to “Jew-lovers”. He had tried to talk to her about it, but realized after several rebuffs that she was not willing or able to do that. He understood and backed off. Then without a break Joel Levin took her hand, dropped to his knee and asked her to marry him.”
The breeze picked up a bit, catching dust and whipping it into a tiny whirlwind that jumped across the lawn. Max and Amanda turned to watch it. The audibility of the voices in the house intensified. They suggested the solace of the porch was an endangered entity.
“Did she?” Amanda asked, cocking her head toward the voices, but staring Max in the eye.
Amanda opened her mouth to speak but stopped as Sophia pushed open the door and walked onto the porch with Lily on her arm and Ruth trailing.
Max looked up and smiled. The weight of the conversation combined with the throb in his head welcomed the interruption. Further chats, if that term fit at all, could be continued later.